Accelerating Gifted Kids in Math: A Case Study

Sometimes gifted kids can move much more quickly than the system is ready for. Sometimes gifted kids can move much more quickly than they are ready for.

What do you do when you have a child whose cognitive abilities exceed the opportunities available? How do you handle it when it’s in one content area, but not necessarily all content areas?

When Gifted Kids Need Higher Math: Reader Q&A

This question came from a reader:

I have an 11-year-old son who is gifted in math, and although I don’t have a specific question, maybe you could help to identify best practices for his course path.

He is currently in 7th grade taking a high school geometry class at the middle school. At home he studies pre calculus and feels this is more his pace. Geometry is “too slow,” and he feels he knows the content.

At a district meeting they told me he couldn’t advance anymore, but the local community college said he could enroll in a math class.

He’s a quiet kid, but I think he’d do well in a college course. What should I be aware of or concerned about before I enroll him into college? How do I find the fine line between appropriate challenge and moving too fast too soon? I am treading new territory without much guidance, and no support from the school district.

Note: Frequently I get questions from parents or teachers about their children and students. It’s frustrated me that I don’t have time to write back to everyone, and so I’ve decided to begin a “Reader Q & A” feature on the site. You can find all responses here.

If you have a question about your child, your student, best practices, or anything Giftedesque, shoot me an email or message on Facebook, and we’ll see what we can do!

Tips for Single Subject Acceleration

I’m going to respond to this question about acceleration in math, but the same principles apply to any single-subject acceleration, which is a form of content-based acceleration.

1. Some kids need to go more quickly. World, please accept this.

This reader is already on board with this idea, as we can see by the fact that the child is a year ahead in math. (I’m going with a year because it’s not uncommon for 8th graders to take algebra, and geometry’s next.)

The school district is also somewhat onboard, as they are offering geometry at the middle school. They’re not enough on board because they’re apparently saying that’s as far as they’re allowing him to advance.

In general, we’re going to have to realize that the dynamic of “you’re 8, so you’re in third grade” is silly.

We’re going to need better and broader systems for managing this truth, but that’s a district and state issue and beyond the scope of the reader’s question.

2. It’s not just about the content.

When we’re looking at accelerating students, we have to look further than content knowledge.

Can the student handle the executive functioning burden of the more advanced opportunity?

It’s great if a thirteen-year-old goes to college to take a class, but it’s not so great if their mommy is emailing the professor to find out when there’s a deadline for a project.

Is the student emotionally ready for the advanced opportunity?

Having a seven-year-old go to fifth grade for math is great, as long as the seven-year-old isn’t throwing a very non-fifth-grader-like tantrum when a grade he/she doesn’t like is earned.

Make sure that the child is ready to handle the whole experience, not just part of it.

3. Test, because kids aren’t always great self-reporters.

The reader says her son feels more like the pre-cal is his level. That’s great, and it may be true. However, it’s important to actually find out because skipping the class that comes before pre-cal (usually trig or algebra II) may be a problem later. You may need that, actually.

For math/science acceleration, I recommend the Belin-Blank Center’s IDEAL Solutions testing. It’s specifically for STEM-y acceleration. They’ve got two options, one for 4th – 6th graders, and one for 7th – 9th graders. This is specifically what I’d recommend for this reader’s son.

It’s trickier in language arts and social studies. Social studies tends to be more discrete in its content, so if you skip a year, you can lose the entire subject (like geography). Please don’t do that. See below for my suggestion in that circumstance.

In language arts, the ACT would work for 7th graders and up, and for younger grades, I’d suggest asking a teacher at a higher grade level to evaluate sample work, including writing, grammar, and literary analysis. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that decoding = analysis. Just because a student can read text doesn’t mean he/she can analyze it at the same level.

That should not be expensive, and the teacher may be willing to write up a letter about his/her findings.

4. Go it alone.

Sometimes the best solution is to go it alone. This can take several forms:

  • The student may work on his/her own outside of a typical school day. I don’t recommend this in addition to the subject’s being taken in school, as it cuts into time to just be a kid. However, some kids love the subject so much that it doesn’t even feel like work to them.
  • The student may work at his/her own pace inside a classroom while the rest of the students work at a typical pace. My middle son did this, plowing through 5th, 6th, and 7th grade math when he was in 4th grade, sitting at his desk and asking questions if he had some. He did the same thing later in high school geography. They didn’t offer AP Human Geography, so he read that textbook when he was done with the pre-AP work everyone else was doing, and he ended up getting a 5 on the exam.
  • The student may be able to learn through a MOOC course and do credit-by-exam at the school. I keep using my own kids as examples, but they thrived on credit-by-exam.

This is what I recommend for social studies, language arts, and other similar courses. Work alone, ahead, if skipping entirely will cause issues.

5. Content alone won’t cut it

The readers says her son feels geometry is too slow. Yep. That’s a problem. Gifted kids can process even advanced information more quickly and efficiently than typical learners, so just moving them to more advanced content won’t fix that issue.

It doesn’t mean the student isn’t at the right level of content. The content may be fine, but the pace may be off.

Teachers still need to differentiate for the gifted learner, even when the content is advanced.

If a class feels too slow, it may not be that the content isn’t a good fit; it may be that the process isn’t a good fit. That’s a teacher issue, so it’s tricky to solve unless the teacher is onboard with idea #1.

6. Specific recommendations for this reader

In your case, I’d do this:

  • visit the college and have your son sit in on a class to get a feel for if it’s a good fit
  • if it is, take a class there with the understanding that if it doesn’t work out, that’s not failing – it’s recalibrating
  • use Belin-Blank’s IDEAL Solutions testing to see where he needs to be
  • if the child is learning without undue stress and anxiety, and if the child is reasonably comfortable in the learning environment (a little discomfort is fine, especially at first), you are not going too fast, too soon

Wrapping Up

Acceleration is one of the greatest things there is for helping gifted kids actually learn something (radical ideas here folks).

With a little planning and some honest reflection, even very unusual situations can be the best choice for many gifted kids. Remember that they often get along better with much older people, so the social thing many people worry about may not be an issue.

If one thing you try doesn’t work, try something else. It’s not a matter of thinking that because one thing didn’t work, no addressing of the issue is needed or just throwing our hands in the air. Keep trying.

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